Beat Family Values: The Typical American Family, and the Beats’ Roll in its Downfall

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The Beat Movement scared the hell out of America. After all, the Beats were dirty, they were obscene, they were lefties, queers, trouble-makers; they were everything that post-war America did not want, and their work threatened the very fabric of society.

But what was that society made up of? What were the atoms at the core of American culture in the post-war era? ‘The Family’; the perfect, pristine embodiment of new American values, nestled away in suburbia with a bright white picket fence out front and smiles to match.  The Beat represented the antithesis of this, and so the Beats were trouble.

In 1960, 65% of children [1] aged 14 and below were being raised by a husband and wife “breadwinner-homemaker” partnership. This pairing – the clean-cut, go-getter husband in white collar employment, and the pretty, demure housewife taking care of the home and kids – was central to the American dream. Together, these two totems of Wholesomeville, USA typified the prosperity, the optimism, and also the fallacy of 1950s America.

It goes without saying that the various personas at the forefront of the Beat movement struggled to fit into this narrative. None could exactly be classed as the traditional patriarchs and matriarchs so highly prized by American society. William Burroughs, after all, killed his wife Jean Vollmer accidently while attempting to shoot a tumbler glass off her head with a handgun. Gary Snyder eschewed traditional Christian values in favor of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Jack Kerouac – despite being politically conservative in later years [2] – sometimes seemed to advocate the use of illegal drugs. Allen Ginsberg, of course, was an open homosexual.

No, this simply would not do. It seems a strange to think now, looking back from a time in which Bob Dylan is a Nobel Laureate and the work of Ginsberg, Kerouac et al is taught in schoolhouses up and down the country, but America and The Beats were at loggerheads from day one.

The End of Typical

Half a century took its toll on the American family. By 2012, it had been beaten out of shape, moulded and reformed into something completely new. The 65% of children living with a working father and a homemaking mother at the start of the Sixties had dwindled to only 22% by time the second decade of the 20th Century rolled around. In 2012, 34% of 0-14 year olds now lived with married parents who were both in employment, while 11% lived with a single mother who had never married, up from 18% and 1% respectively.

There is now no such thing as a ‘typical family’. Instead, there are mini-communities, sharing a home, a life and a bond, and each of these communities has won the right to call itself a family. Lifestyles and living arrangements which would have been frowned upon in 1960 are now considered the norm. The structure of the family has altered as social attitudes have relaxed, and as economic factors have shifted.

Is this just natural progression? Is this just the way of the modern world? Or is there something more ‘sinister’ at play?  Maybe those stuffy, establishment-type squares had a point; maybe they weren’t just trying to cramp the style of an exuberant, creative generation, maybe they were just trying protect something they held dear.

Maybe it was the Beats; maybe they really did kill the TAF – the Typical American Family.

The Beat Family

It cannot be said that the Beat movement set out to destroy the notion of family altogether, nor did this ever come about. They were, after all, a family of sorts themselves.

All literary movements have their canons; the writers and the works with which the movement itself is synonymous. The Romantics had Shelley, Coleridge, Byron, and Wordsworth, foreshadowed by the godfather William Blake; the Existentialists had Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus; the Russian Realists had Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekov, and Gogol; but all were fractured and disparate, sailing away on their own separate literary trips.

The Beats were different. Not since the Halcyon Parisian days of the Lost Generation had a group of writers pursued life, love and literature so full-heartedly, and with such joyous abandon, as the Beats. Certainly, the work they produced was varied – both in terms of style and of quality – but it was approached from roughly the same philosophical standpoint.

So, while Burroughs, the elder statesman, sought to bend the boundaries of language, Kerouac outlined the totality of human experience, seamlessly, on a never-ending scroll of paper. While Ginsberg agonized over sexuality, politics, nuclear annihilation, and mental illness, Gary Snyder composed his own pastoral odes to nature, philosophy, and Eastern spirituality [3]. They were a diverse bunch; but so is any family. And for a series of brief, wonderful moments, their talents shone together, united.

No, this was never about bringing about the end of notions such as family, togetherness and love. This was about definitions; this was about what it meant to be a family, and where this fitted into a wider social and cultural context.

A Different Kind

So, what kind of family were the Beats? Certainly not the Colgate-smile, Buick-in-the-driveway-and-church-on-a-Sunday type. And therein lay the problem.

The Beats offered an alternative to the Typical American Family. They represented the birth of the counterculture; the intellectual awakening of what had begun the first time Bill Haley greased up his hair and encouraged the record-buying public to Rock Around the Clock. They were something different; something youth-oriented and radical.

But the party line was clear: America did not need an alternative. America had won two world wars. America led the globe in manufacturing, in technology, and in quality of life. And all of this was due to The American Way; singular. There could be no plural.

Instead of being welcomed into the mainstream as the heirs to the great throne of American literature – as followers in the hallowed footsteps of Hemingway, Faulkner, Whitman and Twain – the Beats were shunned.[4]

Their work, while not unpopular, was suppressed, which meant that, at first, their flame burned brightly enough to be visible only for those who knew where to look. In other instances, the apparatus of control swung into action somewhat more viciously. William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch was banned [5] and Lawrence Ferlinghetti – the publisher of Ginsberg’s Howl – hit with a high profile obscenity charge, while writer and artist Carl Solomon underwent electroshock therapy in the Columbia Presbyterian Psychological Institute. [6]

A Structure of Fallacy

Bright, white, shining America – composed of its millions of atomic families bonded solidly together – had kicked out, and not for the first time. A decade before Ferlinghetti and bookseller Shig Murao were put on trial for obscenity charges, the first ever standing committee of the HUAC had begun its campaign against alleged communists, rooting out, harassing and castigating anyone whose behavior was seen as ‘un-American’.

It would not be the last time, either. For the remainder of the 20th Century, and perhaps beyond, America would continue to pursue political and cultural figures whose thinking or output did not fit in with the core values of the USA.

It is important to note that both Ferlinghetti and Burroughs won their cases – although Murao was jailed for a time, and Naked Lunch remained banned in several states right up until the mid 1960s. However, such drastic initial responses are not the actions of an impregnable bastion of morality and virtue. Instead, they indicate a nation laboring under a fallacy.

The party line may have been; America needs no alternative. The truth was something closer to; America fears the alternative.

Two Worlds Colliding

When we drill down into the center of the Beat Movement, past the classics and the not-so-classics, beyond the wine skins, the thick-rimmed glasses and the woollen sweaters, further still past Greenwich Village and Dharmic spirituality, down to the philosophical bedrock of the whole thing, what do we find?

Different readers will answer this question in different ways, but for many, the movement represented change. The Beats gave their readers a new lens through which they could view themselves and their position within the world, and a new frame within which to hang whatever it was they found.

This change – this sense of reimagining, reshuffling, rebuilding – meant creative destruction. It meant nihilism in its truest form; the action of breaking down the boundaries and the divisions that inhibit and prohibit growth, and fashioning something new, and something better, from the wreckage.

The American family, in the picture-postcard, TAF sense of the phrase, was incompatible with this. It was a barrier, preventing change and preserving the status quo for as long as possible, and it was a factory, churning out carbon copies of previous generations to keep those great, oppressive wheels spinning. Direct clashes were always on the cards.

The Family, Reimagined

Or perhaps this isn’t the whole story. Perhaps what lay at the heart of the conflict was something more fundamental, more human, than just a bloody-minded, anarchic drive towards change.

Sure, the Beats were radicals. Their art was nothing like what had gone before, their philosophy and spirituality put them in direct opposition with the Biblical narratives of Middle America, and, for the most part, their politics did not align with those of the society they found themselves in.

When society excludes you, your sense of what it means to find and appreciate inclusion becomes sharp and keen. When society will not tolerate your life or your work, the concept of tolerance becomes that little bit more important. This was the source of the humanity at the heart of what the Beats were trying to achieve.

Exclusion, intolerance; these were the pillars upon which the lie of the TAF rested. The life which the TAF espoused was available for some – perhaps even for the majority – but certainly not for all. Images of the TAF were held up as evidence, as proof, that at the heart of America there was love, and there was togetherness, and there was God, and there was happiness.

But, once again: Not. For. All.

In 1955, 14-year-old African-American Emmet Till was horrifically beaten to death by a group of men in a racially motivated assault.[7] In 1957, nine African-American students were forced to fight for the right to attend Little Rock Central High, a right that they subsequently won.[8] Well into the 1960s, there was no federal law guaranteeing Native Americans a vote.[9] Throughout his career, Senator Joe McCarthy repeatedly invoked homophobic rhetoric against his opponents, despite, or perhaps because of, rumors surrounding his own sexuality.[10]

These were not inclusive times, and the TAF was the bastion of this. The TAF showed that there could be love, provided that that love was between a man and a woman, that there could be prosperity, provided that that you had white skin, and that there could be happiness, provided your racial and political DNA placed you on the right side of a very strict boundary line.

The Beats championed a free-thinking America; a land of free-expression, free-love, and free-agency. How could this be reconciled with the placative lie that post-war America had been sold?

A Real Influence

It couldn’t be. Reconciliation was simply not possible. Society may have been able – just about – to tolerate the antics of the Beats in Greenwich Village, or in North Beach, San Francisco, or in some other freaky enclave of commies, Jews, pinkos and negros, but in suburbia? No way.

And so, into suburbia it came, the writing spreading out from its source in the same way the wandering souls who authored it had done years before. This was to be the legacy of the Beat; the beginning of an influence and a movement which would extend far, far beyond the jazz cafes and poetry evenings which had spawned it.

The Beat movement never sought legitimacy, but in kickstarting the counterculture – in providing the powder, the matches, the blue touch paper, and the instructions to the radical artists and activists who would follow in their footsteps – they had had legitimacy thrust upon them. The secret was out. America was not a vast plain in a single dimension, with row after row of identikit properties housing identikit families stretching from sea to shining sea; it was something altogether more fascinating. Over the following decades, the USA would become a cultural powerhouse – and if the mainstream was strong, the underground was even stronger.

A cultural language was developed which gave a voice to the underdog, the outsider, the downtrodden. Instead of being the preserve of the few, cultural production and appreciation was democratized – it became ours, rather than theirs. From the protest singers of the 1960s, through the garage rockers of the ‘70s, to the hardcore punkers and guerrilla filmmakers of the ‘80s, and further, the Beat influence is clear.

Against such a tide, the TAF never really stood a chance. Slowly but surely, America began to edge towards inclusivity, towards tolerance, towards a more faithful representation of the dreams upon which the country was built. The TAF, and all it represented, was done for. And the Beat Movement played its part in that.

Already Rotten

It cannot be said that, in bringing down the TAF, the Beats worked alone. The wood that they chipped away at in those heady days of the mid to late 1950s had already been rotted, both from without – by civil rights groups and direct activism – and from within, by the inherent structural deficiencies at its core.

However, it is clear that the Beats were instrumental in bringing about this change. They helped to break down social barriers, and to foster an environment in which the familial structure could better reflect the diversity of the nation and its populous. This rag-tag bunch of writers and dropouts, poets and miscreants, philosophers and disrupters, gave a coherent voice to the political tumult which was gathering in America at that time. They put pen to paper and distilled the spirit of what it meant to be alive in those times, when anger and injustice burned like fire in the hearts of the many. And, perhaps more importantly, they have delivered us an astonishing body of work, with which to beat ourselves if we catch ourselves repeating the mistakes of the past.

For this, we owe a debt of gratitude. The American Family is dead; long live the American family.

 

Notes

  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2014/09/04/for-the-first-time-since-the-1950s-there-is-no-typical-u-s-family/
  2. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-conservative-kerouac/
  3. Prothero, Stephen (1991). “On the Holy Road: The Beat Movement as Spiritual Protest”.The Harvard Theological Review84: 205–222 – via JSTOR
  4. https://prezi.com/z0k–lechhnc/censorship-and-the-beat-generation/
  5. http://www.grazian-archive.com/quiddity/Ginsberg/Ginsberg_.html
  6. https://www.scribd.com/doc/307407940/2-Carl-Solomon-s-Report-From-the-Asylum
  7. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/sfeature/sf_look_confession.html
  8. http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2007/09/littlerock200709
  9. https://www.justice.gov/crt/history-federal-voting-rights-laws
  10. http://outwordmagazine.com/inside-outword/glbt-news/1240-dying-for-joe-mccarthys-sins-reviewed

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John Burns

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John is a full-time writer, sometime teacher, avowed globetrotter and obsessive reader, originally from Nottingham in the UK. He uses his passion for literature to inspire his students - to varying degrees of success - and can occasionally be found editing and commissioning work for 10BooksFor.com.

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